Time seems to stand still in this empty house. What is it now? 1:42 pm. Across the street, Holly’s mother and a collection of middle-aged to elderly women Holly barely knows are all getting ready to surprise her.
By now they will have fully festooned, swathed, and decked out Holly’s parents’ cramped house. There will be a punch bowl and streamers and balloons and a cake and tiny hand-knit sweaters and pastel bibs and teething rings tied with ribbons. The women will be hiding behind closet doors and stuffed armchairs and floor-length curtains. All for two o’clock.
What if right now was forever? If she could stay here this way — no going back or going forward? Baby shower across the street and husband in another town. Just 1:42 pm and 18 weeks’ knocked up.
Holly drops the dandelion she pulled behind the house on the counter. What’s the French name again. Pis-en-lit? Piss in the Bed. Such a raunchy flower. Tough enough to bust through tarmac. The strongest plants are weeds. She leans over the burner of the old stove and lights her last cigarette.
What if this house — this abandoned shell she’s been using as a hideout for all her illicit cigarette smoking this whole week she’s been visiting her parents — what if it were her house? If she took up residence as the neighborhood madwoman? She’d camp out here until the baby was born, snatching bloody steaks off backyard grills, trampling over rows of petunias to pluck overripe tomatoes, yanking up carrots and radishes by their green tops the same way she used to grab dolls by their hair.
There would be stories about her. Kids. Neighborhood women. But no one would be able to prove a thing. Her mother would hear them but she’d never make the connection. All along they’d just be thinking of her as a pregnant woman home with her husband in a faraway small town.
Her crimes would be blamed on teenagers and hippies mostly, or that old fallback “a drifter,” but there’d also be whispered talk of a witch, of a wolverine. Children would be afraid to walk by the house. Some of the brave ones, the insolent 11-year-old smokers, would run up to front porch, hearts racing, and ring the doorbell before bolting back to the safety of the sidewalk. All to make a buck or two.
The baby would be born here. A girl.
And then what? Holly would have to steal thousands of diapers for her as a newborn. Rock her to sleep in a dresser drawer. Keep the broken glass and dust away from her tender feet and her groping hands as a toddler. Get her sturdy shoes and teach her to read and reason as a six-year-old. In this bandit’s lair. Solo.
Okay, so, instead of staying here as an urban wildwoman, what if she runs away to Paris and becomes a star of experimental theatre, even going so far as to give birth right on the stage? She’ll be written up in Le Monde and The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times and whatever the paper in London, England is called. Her friend Anna will get wind of it. She’ll be sitting at breakfast with her director boyfriend quizzing him on Where He Was Last Night while the two of them eat baked beans and bubble and squeak, whatever that is, and maybe some Cornish pastries too. Anna’s skin will be pasty as anything from sitting inside all day while it rains.
Holly, still fond of, but somewhat bored with, Paris, will form a theatre troupe that travels the world. Her childhood crush, Sam, will see her photo and his heart will burst. He’ll look for Holly, but never find her. Search for the rest of his life. Holly herself will have many lovers, musicians, soldiers, gangsters, acrobats, but will refuse to settle on one.
And the baby? There will be a wise and kindly but totally cool woman who travels with the troupe. She will take care of the girl while Holly is working. She will explain her mother’s plays to her, even when she is still an infant. But what if she loves this caretaker more than her own mother? What if she hates the theatre and becomes as different from Holly as Holly is from her own mother? What if she grows to resent Holly because she was never there?
All right. How about this then? Her husband loses his new job before he even starts it. They stay where they are and don’t move away to the small university town and they live on as always. She miscarries.
Her throat clutches.
She slides her back against the cold metal stove, and crouches down close to the pale linoleum floor, knees splayed, chest heaving. One arm cradles her belly. The other holds her cigarette. She stares at the smoke as it wafts upwards, snaking into slow spirals.
Is that what she truly wants? What she secretly wishes for? Be honest.
She loves the baby. This girl or boy inside her. That breathes and feeds and moves along with her. To feel any other way would be to hate her own self.
She holds the last cigarette between her two fingers. She cannot finish it. She stands and butts it out in the sink.